Charles Roven is a big time Hollywood producer*. He’s worked with eclectic artists like Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys), awards darlings like David O.Russell (American Hustle) and blockbuster directors like Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy). His work isn’t all good (Rollerball, Scooby Doo, Season of the Witch, Scooby Doo 2), but the point is, Roven has an idea about what it means to produce a picture that can make money. Roven’s latest release, Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, adds to his list of financial successes and ignominies.
But as a studio producer, it turns out, Roven is not only selling tickets. He’s also selling toys.
During a recent episode of podcast The Frame, host John Horn asked Roven about how his job changes when working on expansive franchise film universes, like Batman v Superman, compared to a prestige picture like American Hustle.
Specifically, Horn asked whether it was possible for a producer to ignore all the marketing requirements, including “toys and theme parks and characters who are going to be spun out.”
Roven’s response is not going to surprise anyone, but I think it’s important that it be considered. So, is it possible to avoid the noise and just focus on the movie being made?
Roven: You can’t. That would be putting your head in the sand. You can’t divorce the consumer products portion, the promotional aspects portion, of making huge tentpole franchise property. If you’re dealing with promotional partners, and if you dealing with consumer products, their whole existence is based on the fact that they want the brand relatability. Therefore, you have to not just manage the movie itself, you have to manage how they’re going to manage the material you give them of the movie.
Horn: But what happens if, I’m throwing a hypothetical out, somebody’s making a Wonder Woman action figure says we need her to strike this kind of pose in the film. How do you make sure the tail is not wagging the dog?
Roven: You sometime walk away from the situation. I’ll give you a good example. We had a situation where we didn’t want to reveal something, and yet it was really important to a particularly product that they be allowed to reveal it.
Horn: In the film or in the trailer?
Roven: In the packaging. Before the movie came out. We couldn’t make that work.
Roven, in surprisingly candid fashion, is talking about how promotional content, consumer product tie-ins, even product packaging effects the process of making and marketing films. It’s possible that movie-goers know this before they go into a film; but it’s hard to imagine anyone admitting the fact more clearly than this.
You recognize this. Theme park expansion is constantly underway (Marvel coming to Disney, Harry Potter to Universal Studios, etc). Actors can spend a decade (or more if you’re Robert Downey Jr.) playing the same character, promoting the same franchise, returning to the same events year after year.
But the mother lode is toys and merchandising. Anyone who’s walked through a retail story in the past 40 years knows what Horn is talking about. Licensed merchandise from franchise films can be found in every aisle. This week Target is full of Captain America: Civil War merchandise, which doesn’t come out for three more weeks.
The Force Awakens remains an aisle-worthy title, despite being released four months ago. And why shouldn’t it? The franchise has always been as much about toys as it is movies.
The weird thing about merchandising and product management, though, is that it’s everywhere. Concern about the packaging of toys is understandable; there is likely to be film images involved to sell that product. But what to make of this?
The reality that cinema is a marketing tool for toys (or coffee creamer), isn’t new. Movies have long been avenues for toy sales; upon release in 1977, Star Wars unleashed a merchandising campaign unlike the world had ever seen. One that changed the relationship between movies and product licensing forever. But there has been, at least tacitly, an agreement that the powers behind these films are letting their creators work free of toy packaging concerns. That the creative decisions are not being made based on merchandising deals and toys and theme parks and all the ancillary marketing aspects of a movie. They always have been, perhaps, but at least we didn’t have to talk about it.
One thing this discussion betrays is that the marriage of business and movies has always been core to the industry, and has resulted in some of history’s best films. You cannot make a movie without money and few financiers are going to pay to make something that they don’t believe has a chance to earn some profit. That has always been plain; it’s difficult enough to make a good movie, and it takes money to market it to an audience. But what Roven is talking about, what modern franchise entertainment must contend with, is another layer altogether. How to make a movie that can be marketed to an audience, while simultaneously serving as marketing tool for products based on the film itself? Money fueling movies fueling money. How can anyone make art in such a scenario?
And yet, it happens all the time. Marvel and Star Wars, Harry Potter and Hunger Games, all of these have been able to bear the weight of art and advertisement. Even if we’d rather not think of our favorite movies as ads for toys, perhaps there is no longer any reason to hide our head in the sand.
*full disclosure: I interned for Atlas Entertainment, Charles Roven’s production company, in 2001. Trust me, he doesn’t remember.